Religion in the workplace

Can an employee refuse diversity training because of religious beliefs?

Religion in the workplace

It can be difficult for companies to negotiate the line between what is for the good of the company, and what suits the individual - and one particular minefield is when the company’s values conflict with an employee’s faith. So, when the two conflict, and employer and employee are at loggerheads, who prevails?

In a decision that provides at least some clarity, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an employee who claimed he was discriminated against on the basis of religion for refusing to attend LGBTQ anti-discrimination training. The plaintiff worked as an account clerk for Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, a public organization that provides educational programs and services to school districts.

Nearly five years ago, in 2018, the employer mandated training to maintain an environment free of harassment and discrimination, as required by New York State's Dignity for All Students Act.

Despite being told by his boss to attend the training, the plaintiff refused, citing his religious beliefs as a devout Christian. He also requested that the employer offer training to teach greater cultural sensitivity towards persons of faith.

The plaintiff was issued a counseling memo for insubordination and directed to attend the LGBTQ training or face disciplinary action up to and including termination. The plaintiff did not attend the training as directed and was subsequently terminated.

The district court dismissed his case, finding that the termination was not due to religious discrimination but for repeatedly refusing to attend mandatory employee training. The Second Circuit has now affirmed this decision.

The plaintiff filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, which was likewise dismissed for no probable cause. The plaintiff then filed suit in district court seeking reinstatement, back pay, and $10 million in damages, alleging that the training aimed to change his religious beliefs and attending it would violate his religious teachings.

However, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, holding that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence of discriminatory intent or malice, and that his termination was due to repeatedly refusing to attend a mandatory employee training.

The Second Circuit affirmed the decision, finding that the plaintiff had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support his claims. The case highlights the importance of employers providing mandatory employee training to maintain a safe and inclusive workplace while respecting employees' religious beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear the case of Groff v. DeJoy, which addresses the issue of an employer's duty to provide reasonable accommodations for religious reasons.

The two issues before the court are 1) Should the court reconsider the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for denying religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as established in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison; and; (2) can an employer claim "undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business" under Title VII simply by demonstrating that the requested accommodation imposes a burden on the employee's coworkers, rather than directly affecting the business itself?

Oral arguments are scheduled for April 18, and the decision could potentially change the current test for determining what constitutes an "undue burden" on employers and co-workers.

This could give employees seeking religious accommodations more leverage in the workplace. The case underscores the ongoing debate between an employer's obligation to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and the impact such accommodations may have on the employer and other employees.

Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed the issue of religious accommodations in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case involved Larry G. Hardison, an employee of Trans World Airlines (TWA) who converted to the Worldwide Church of God, a Christian denomination that observes the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

As a result of his religious beliefs, Hardison requested not to be scheduled to work during the Sabbath. However, TWA's seniority-based system for scheduling time off made it difficult for him to obtain Saturdays off without a conflict with his coworkers' preferences. Eventually, Hardison was assigned to a shift that required him to work on Saturdays. When he did not report to work on the Sabbath, he was terminated for insubordination.

Hardison sued TWA, claiming that the company failed to provide reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs, as required under Title VII. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of TWA with a 7-2 decision. The court held that TWA was not required to accommodate Hardison's religious needs if doing so would impose more than a "de minimis" (minimal) cost on the employer's business operations. In this case, the court found that TWA's efforts to accommodate Hardison would have imposed more than a de minimis cost due to the disruption of the seniority-based scheduling system and the impact on other employees.

The Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison decision established the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for determining whether an employer has provided a reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious beliefs under Title VII. This test has been subject to criticism and debate in the years since the ruling.

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